Return to Bosnia-Herzegovina: Martin Bell’s War

This is the eighth part in a series about Bosnia-Herzegovina thirty years after its civil wars.


Stari Most, the old bridge at Mostar, that spans the Neretva River. The bridge was destroyed in the wars of the 1990s and rebuilt in 2004. East Mostar is Muslim, and West Mostar is Croatian, and the two communities have little contact. Photo: Matthew Stevenson.

Most days in Sarajevo I had lunches with library friends, but in the evenings I was free to wander. I cannot say that in February Sarajevo is a joy on foot—think of freezing rain and slushy sidewalks—so often I bailed into an Austrian café or sometimes a shop called Buybook that has a large selection about the Bosnian war. On earlier trips to Sarajevo that’s where I had found some useful maps and translations of Ivo Andrić.

On this occasion I came away with a “revised and updated edition” of Martin Bell’s In Harm’s Way – Bosnia: A War Reporter’s Story. Bell was a BBC correspondent who covered much of the war between 1992 – 1995. The war ended almost thirty years ago, but the story remains current.

Martin Bell’s War

Reading between the lines, I don’t think Bell lived all that time in either Bosnia or Sarajevo, but came and went from London with his camera crew (and in his white suit), and he became one of the few reporters to cover both the war’s outbreak and its settlement, with the Dayton peace accords, almost four years later.

The author biography at the beginning of the book notes that Bell has “worked on assignments in more than a hundred countries, including eighteen wars,” which may explain why the book is better on the craft of war correspondence than it is on the history of the political issues that led to so much violence in the Balkans.

I suspect that the book is widely read in schools of journalism, as much of what he describes is the life of a foreign correspondent, down to the details of arguments between editors at the home office and reporters in the field. He writes: “The mistakes that we made were different mistakes, and if we shaded the truth we did it in different ways. These had to do with the nature of the medium itself, its thirst for immediacy and its idolatry of the live shot. We were driven too much back on to our communications and not enough out into the world around us.”

At the same time Bell is at his best describing how access to television—at least in Bosnia—dictated much of the way that the war was fought. He adds: “This was the way that wars were waged in the age of satellite television and UN peace enforcement: a military victory could also be a political defeat. The Muslims could win the war by losing it. And vice versa the Serbs.”

Home-grown Napoleons around Sarajevo

Much of Bell’s account of the civil war takes place in or around Sarajevo, where he is forever surviving an artillery barrage or trying to cajole his way across one of the many checkpoints around the besieged city. (“Bosnia,” he writes, “is a country of home-grown Napoleons, one at every road-block. It takes a fair slice of luck to get past them.”)

Except in some general sense of a city surrounded by tall mountains and sniper nests, I found it hard to visualize Bell’s war in Sarajevo, especially as many (but not all) of the destroyed apartment blocks have been rebuilt and because the actual siege lines snaked along not just the main boulevards but through numerous alleys that were left over from the Turkish and Austrian occupations.

Ironically, one of the strengths of Bell’s account is that it is disorganized. He jumps from firefight to fire fight, from Sarajevo and Vitez to Tuzla and back again—and in that way captures the randomness of the war in which Serbs, Croats, and Muslims, as best they could, fought to separate communities that had otherwise overlapped for centuries. As Bosnian novelist Ivo Andrić writes:

“… Moslem countries wage war in an open manner, without hypocrisy or prevarication. War has always been an important part of their mission in the world. Islam came to Europe under a warrior’s banner and has managed to stay here up to the present day either by making its own wars or by taking advantage of the wars among the Christian powers. And, as far as I know, the Christian states condemn wars so strongly they’re always blaming one another for starting them. But while they’re condemning them, they never cease to wage them.”

The Two Mostars

On one of my days in Sarajevo, I was given a car and driver and sent off to visit libraries in Mostar, of which there are two: one for Muslims, and across the famous bridge and river, another for Croats.

Initially all we did was sit in traffic until the driver maneuvered onto an autoroute—Bosnia has several short highways, most around Sarajevo. Once through Ilidža, where Bell lived during some of his wartime stretches, the traffic eased, and we drove on a four-lane road that, after about forty-five minutes, picked up the contours of the Nerevetna river, which runs through the mountains to the Adriatic Sea.

Leaving Sarajevo, I was wondering about the cantonal system that divided both Bosnia-Hercegovina, in general, and Sarajevo, in particular, in the Dayton Peace Accords. Cantonization—if that’s a word—is a concept adopted from Switzerland, where political power resides more in the communes and regions (the cantons) than in the federal government in Bern.

In adopting it, the hope is that differences of language, nationality, and religion can be managed more effectively, as they are in Switzerland, at the local level. Nevertheless, Bell writes somberly about Sarajevo after Dayton:

The principal, and probably lasting, change was the return under the Dayton agreement of the five Serb-held suburbs to Bosnian government control. This reunited the capital; and the Americans, who were much in the proclamation business, proclaimed it as their achievement. Perhaps it was, but it was bought at a great cost. What they failed to note in their triumphalism was that Sarajevo was the united capital of a partitioned country; the dream of a multi-ethnic Bosnia was gone, the Muslimization of the city and its government provoked the resignation of its respected mayor, Tarik Kupusovic, who lamented ‘Sarajevo’s suicide’; the Serbs fled in droves rather than live together with their former enemies, burning and looting as they left; in all their suburbs there was hardly a door frame left standing.

The driver wondered if I wanted to stop for coffee at Ostrožac, a resort town on the shores of Jablaničko lake, which emerged in the 1950s with the construction of an electricity dam farther downstream. I decided that we should push on to east Mostar (the Muslim quarter) as my first appointment was 11 a.m., and I didn’t want to keep the director waiting. Nor did the driver know exactly where the library was located, as several branches had popped up on GPS. But I was prepared for the town’s bifurcated existence, as Bell writes: “For long periods since Dayton, Mostar had no municipal government at all. Despite the rebuilding of its famous bridge, it limped along as a city of two halves, its principal businesses being tourism and crime.” I didn’t see the famous bridge as we drove into Mostar on the east side of the river.

We went past the old Yugoslav train station, which I remembered from my travels in the summer of 1976. The main hall is Titoist 1960s modern, with girders, columns, and stone, but the size suggests a city that might expect fifty trains a day from all over Yugoslavia, while today only a handful of local trains—from Sarajevo and Čapljina—stop each day, which explains why the waiting room echoes the solitary cadences of spies coming in from the cold.

No Money for Book Shelves

When we found the library, it turned out not to be the main branch, but a children’s library, and the librarian on duty explained that we needed to walk south for another ten minutes.

Eventually, we found the library, which has smallish rooms on several floors, but also a balcony terrace looking at the river and toward the historic bridge. The director welcomed me to his office, and after talking for a while—mostly about the lack of funding for all Bosnian libraries—we walked around the reading rooms, and he showed me the shelves (there were only a few) that housed the foreign literature.

Yes, the director said, he would very much like more books in English, French, and German, but he wasn’t sure where he could display them. We left it that when the next shipment of books arrived, he was free to take anything he wanted from the boxes, and that he was free to share them with students and the faculty at the local university. (As I write, the books are collecting dust in a warehouse.) Then, after lunch, the driver and I walked across the bridge to the Croatian side of Mostar, which felt like another country.

Around the Mostar bridge, there’s a small tourist district, made up of restaurants, souvenir stands, and a few hotels. Then the town of Croatian Mostar takes over. Besides some office buildings and park walkways, there’s a section of ruined buildings, untouched since the war destroyed them, as if to remind everyone of the internecine fighting that here pitted Muslims against Croats, and which brought down the elegant stone bridge.

On the Muslim side of the bridge, there were minarets and old stone houses along the riverbank, while on the Croatian side, there were more modern Austrian buildings, and everywhere the flag of local Croatian separatists, who would love nothing more than to be done with the Bosnian federation.

The Croatian library was housed in a wing of the city hall—a Croatian separatist flag hung out front—and the chief librarian toured me around the rooms, a number of which were dusty and sad.

I explained that I wasn’t selling anything, but had books to give away, should the library want any. She didn’t say yes and she didn’t say no, but said that she hoped to learn more about the books we would be delivering, and that’s where we left things—in the spirit of drift that seems to envelop that part of Mostar.

The Warring Sides

During the war years, Mostar’s divide—physical and spiritual—claimed a lot of attention at the United Nations and other international organizations. Eventually, when Muslims and Croats declared an end to their fighting—so that both sides could fight the Serbs—Mostar emerged from the war but never quite got as far as peace.

The uneasiness today in Mostar reminded me of many passages in Bell’s book about the challenges of peacekeeping and the inability of the United Nations especially, in the 1990s, to separate the warring sides. Bell writes:

Bosnia exposed the UN’s infirmities – weaknesses of structure and of the collective will of its member states – more cruelly and over a longer period than even such contemporary crises as Rwanda or Somalia. And yet the record was not one of total failure. Even in disarray, the UN saved lives, as Larry Hollingworth [a UN refugee official] knew better than anyone since he was there from the start. ‘Everything was ad hoc,’ he said. ‘We made it up as we went along. But I would say we saved a hundred thousand lives. There was no question of that.’

Elsewhere in his book, he’s less charitable about the UN, writing: “The UN’s operation there was from the start probably the most ad-hoc, makeshift and ill-considered in its history. It was not just badly planned, but unplanned.” Later he comments: “So the debate about it was about more than Bosnia. It still is about more than Bosnia (for it did not end with the peace process). It is about the future of the United Nations – if, after Bosnia, it has a future.”

Un-safe Areas

Perhaps no UN policy was more ad hoc than its so-called “safe areas” declared in Muslim enclaves such as Srebrenica, Gorazde, and Bihac, the object of which was to protect the local Muslim populations in a sea of Serbs. As a reporter, Bell did not spend a lot of time in these enclaves, although he visited them all. (What’s never clear in his book is whether he’s there to cover the civil war, the international peacekeeping, or the progress of British soldiers attached to the United Nations force.) But he quickly realized that without ample force, the United Nations was not in a position to defend the safe areas adequately. Nor did it know how to respond when Muslim forces in the enclaves would use the protection of the UN occupation forces to shell Serbian positions, knowing that the Serbs could not respond. Bell writes about Gorazde, which isn’t far from Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia:

The UN Security Council is better at passing resolutions than at providing the means to implement them. If words alone could keep the peace, then peace would have prevailed. Over the months it had delivered about a hundred resolutions and statements, often vague and conflicting, and never matched with the necessary strength on the ground. The Gorazde crisis was described by a senior UN officer, Brigadier Charles Ritchie, as “a classic case of what happens when what is expected of you exceeds your ability to do it. We do not have instantly the troops available that we would like to send to Gorazde.”

Eventually, in 1995, the dam burst in Srebrenica (in eastern Bosnia), where the army of the Republika Srpska under General Ratko Mladic swept aside a light company of Dutch peacekeepers and cleansed the area of its remaining Muslims, resulting in the deaths of some 8,000 Bosniak men and boys, who were marched into killing fields.

Bell writes: “So it happened that in Srebrenica the UN finally crossed the line that separates inaction from dishonor. The women and children were herded into pens under the guns of the triumphant Serbs, the men of military age were led away for ‘questioning’ as suspected war criminals, and the Dutch UN troops were reduced to urging the victims not to panic. Herb Okun, who with Cyrus Vance was UNPROFOR’s architect, described it as one of the blackest days in the UN’s history.” But there were other, smaller Srebrenicas across Bosnia-Hercegovina during the war years, and at other times and in other locations those suffering such a fate could have been Croats and Serbs, as well as Muslims.

Serbia and its Discontents

On the drive back to Sarajevo, my driver and I talked about tourism, as his job is largely to drive vans of travelers around Bosnia and beyond. As such he got to see much more of the Balkans than most, and I asked him how some of the other countries were faring since the dissolution of Yugoslavia.

He said most of the tourists wanted to go along the Dalmatian coast, which has beaches and islands. Because Bosnia does not recognize Kosovo, its citizens cannot go there, so he had never been. He talked about the influx of Russians and Russian money to Montenegro, especially after the outbreak of the war with Ukraine.

He did visit Serbia with some of his groups, but sensed it was an outlier in European politics, suspicious especially of NATO, the United Nations, and the European Union. His impressions matched a passage I later came across in Bell’s book, which reads:

The Serbs in their pride and paranoia were difficult to deal with at the best of times, and downright impossible when the fortunes of war began to turn against them. The defining and most celebrated moment of their history was a battle which they lost (the Battle of Kosovo in 1389), and 600 years later it seemed that they still retained a talent for plucking defeat from the jaws of victory. It was almost as if they wished to be encircled and besieged and betrayed and attacked, and organized their affairs in such a way that this would happen, for only thus, with the world against them, would it confirm their heroic view of themselves and their soldierly qualities. They felt at their best when shining against dark backgrounds, and would if necessary create the darkness to shine against.

By contrast, I told the driver about my summer visit in 1976, when I had gone all over Yugoslavia—in buses, cars, and trains—and how all I remembered were tranquil valleys of wheat and drinking slivovitz under shady trees. And nothing within the country that resembled an international border.

Next installment: Peacekeeping around Bosnia.

Earlier pieces in this series can be read here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.